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Sita's Sweet Tooth

Each spoonful of this ethereal delight is steeped in the history of Bengal

Sita's Sweet Tooth
Sanjoy Ghosh
Sita's Sweet Tooth
A monumental gate towers over the dusty, crowded streets of Burdwan in Bengal's rice bowl. It's named after Lord Curzon, viceroy at the turn of the last century who attempted to partition Bengal and is still disliked for it. But, to give the devil his due, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon did leave quite a sweet taste in Bengal's mouth. Had he not deigned to visit Burdwan nearly a century ago, we might never have known the delights of sitabhog and mihidana. Burdwan is justifiably proud of these two sweets, which are no run-of-the-mill mithais. They're served separately, but complement each other, and absolutely must be had the day they're made—refrigeration is taboo.

Don't get taken in by Burdwan's narrow alleys, dilapidated buildings and overflowing drains. It is actually a prosperous town, thanks to the fertile farmlands that surround and sustain it. It also enjoys a special mystique, not only because its sitabhog and mihidana are much coveted by sweet-toothed Bengalis (and that would mean all Bengalis), but also because of its interesting history. A four-hour drive down the Durgapur expressway from Calcutta brings us to Burdwan. We head for Deshbandhu Mistanna Bhandar. A rich smell of ghee wafts out of the shop, thronged by jostling customers.

So, what makes Burdwan's sitabhog and mihidana special? Joydeb Nag, the shop owner and a descendant of Bhairab Nag who first made the sweets 102 years ago, invites me to sample the delicacies. My skepticism melts immediately, surrendering to the pleasures of a really delicate treat that seduces the senses. The sitabhog is made of powdered rice and cottage cheese mixed in a proportion of 1:4; and only the sitaser variety of gobindabhog rice that grows solely in one patch of Burdwan district is said to give sitabhog its distinctive flavour and taste. Mihidana, made in the same way but with besan, has smaller grains and is equally ethereal.

Nag's shop stands on B.C. Road, between the Curzon Gate and the old palace, now part of Burdwan University. The road is named after Maharaja Bijoy Chand Mahatab who played proud host to Lord Curzon on August 16, 1904, and had commissioned Bhairab to make a special sweet to commemorate the viceroy's visit.

The process of making sitabhog and mihidana may sound simple, but requires special savoir faire. One has to know exactly how long to knead the sitabhog dough (of powdered rice and cottage cheese), how much milk to add, its precise consistency, how hard it should be rubbed on the brass plate with small oblong perforations, so that the basmati rice-like grains that fall below are not too hard or too soft, how thick the sugar syrup the grains are then soaked in should be, and how long after being made they should be served, so that both texture and taste are at their peak. Burdwan's 150-odd sweet shops churn out about 60,000 kilos of the two sweets every day, and they rarely travel outside Bengal.

Getting back to history, Curzon is said to have loved the sweets so much that he made it the official dessert at all state functions during his tenure. "It's the best sweet dish in the world," declares Pranoy Chand Mahatab, Bijoy Chand's descendant and the youngest scion of the erstwhile Burdwan royal family. A Doon School old boy with a London University PhD, he relates the Burdwan royal family's curious history. Pranoy Chand is the 16th generation descendant of Abu Rai, a Punjabi trader in textiles and rice. In 1657, on hearing a rumour that Emperor Shahjahan had died, his son Shuja, in charge of the eastern part of the empire, asserted his claim to the throne of Delhi. The angry emperor dispatched his army to Bengal, but they found their supply lines cut off until Abu Rai came to their aid. A grateful Shahjahan issued a decree, giving Abu Rai the right to rule Burdwan. Thus did a Punjabi trader become a maharaja in Bengal.

Pranoy Chand would like to see Burdwan's delectable sitabhog and mihidana become as famous outside Bengal as rasgollas. So would Indranil Nag of Ganesh Sweets, who is working with Jadavpur University's Food Technology department to devise a way of extending their shelf life while retaining their delicacy. If they succeed, Curzon's descendants may be able to get a taste of the viceroy's favourite dessert.

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